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Birthdays Can be the Most Lonely Day of the Year for Travelers

A person’s birthday is the day when their families, friends, and acquaintances make an effort to celebrate them, to show that they are happy that they were born, that they value their friendship. But what good is this day when you’re on the road, far from home, your family, and friends? A birthday can be [...]

A person’s birthday is the day when their families, friends, and acquaintances make an effort to celebrate them, to show that they are happy that they were born, that they value their friendship. But what good is this day when you’re on the road, far from home, your family, and friends? A birthday can be the most lonely day of all for a traveler.

It’s a good thing that even the most callous and trendy of backpackers often feel sympathy for their brethren who are celebrating birthdays on the road. We all have been there or will be soon. One of the more amazing little things that I’ve regularly seen while traveling is how people will gather together to celebrate a near stranger’s birthday if they are far from home. I’ve been the recipient of this phenomenon on various occasions, and it truly surprises me each time why people that I hardly even know will take it upon themselves to celebrate my birthday.

In Mongolia in 2006 a hostel full of strangers had a small celebration for me. In El Salvador in 2010 my wife assembled just about everyone we had even remote contact with — from papusa cooks to Spanish students to random backpackers — into a bar and had a full fledged party for my birthday. Various times when on the road working archaeology the crew would take a break from their usually boozing to propose a birthday toast in my honor. This year in China my wife again packed a bar full of people I’ve only just met.

And I’m sure to pass on the favor to my brethren on the road. It is almost the duty of a traveler to put together little celebrations for any other traveler whose birthday it happens to be. Believe me, it truly means something.

Birthday dinner

Filed under: Traveler Culture

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3398 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

4 comments… add one

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  • Bob L June 1, 2012, 6:09 pm

    As the years progress, birthdays become much less important. Celebrating them or not becomes a non issue. Eventually you will celebrate them quietly with only your wife and maybe your child/grand children. Except for the milestones. 40. 50 60! But even then, the celebration is less rowdy, more sober.

    Your very good writing seems to be improving even more. Keep up the good work old man.

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    • Wade Shepard June 1, 2012, 10:38 pm

      Thanks Bob,

      Funny how birthdays do become less and less of a “thing.” I guess when you’re celebrated by the same people over and over again every year the message eventually gets through and sticks haha. Celebrating birthdays on the road does have two advantages though: often, it’s the first time at your birthday party for most of the people there and you given some travelers a reason to party.

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  • félixxx June 4, 2012, 10:11 am

    Happy (late?) birthday Wade 🙂

    I personally never cared that much for my birthday, and since I started travelling a lot it hasn’t gotten much better, as my b-day falls right in the transition period between work and summer vacation, when people are either gone, in a last rush, or partying anyway. I do appreciate the fact though that birthdays are often the catalyst or starting point for nice displays of generosity and friendliness like you described in this post.

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    • Wade Shepard June 5, 2012, 8:34 am

      Thanks Felix,

      Yes, it is a sign of a truly confident person when they don’t really even bother acknowledging their own birthday. I try to not bother caring about mine, but it just doesn’t happen this way haha. Right on, having the opportunity to do something nice for a friend drives the friendship deeper and increases the bond. I suppose birthdays are good for something.

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